Friday, April 30, 2010

Parental rights and education

It's a story you might read or hear on the news a lot here in Texas: local school officials plan major curriculum changes, parents object, and the changes end up being scaled back or modified out of sensitivity to the parents. Here in Texas, the parents would be Christians, and the news spin would probably blame fundamentalist religious beliefs for the objection to the curriculum materials.

But there's a twist to this one, written about by Brian Lilley at MercatorNet:
Last January, with little fanfare, the ministry of education released a revised curriculum for all students in grades 1 through 8; the subject area sex education. Now it is important to point out that this is a revised curriculum and that sex education has been a mainstay in the province's schools for nearly 30 years. The fight over whether to have it or not is long over; the fight now is what to teach. [...]

The fight over the new curriculum has more to do with the explicit nature of some of the material aimed at later grades. By the third grade, which in Ontario generally means children aged 7 or 8 years old, teachers would introduce topics such as homosexuality, gender identity and sexual orientation. In grade six, masturbation would share time with grammar and complex math problems, while in grade seven, children would begin to learn about oral and anal sex.

If any of this makes you shake your head in wonder then you are not alone. While much of the commentary in the Canadian media has focussed on Premier Dalton McGuinty caving in to the "religious right" this is only half the story. Just days before the premier announced that "we should give this a serious rethink", a group of Evangelical Christian groups announced that they planned a mass protest on the lawn of the legislature to denounce the government's plans as "indoctrination." These groups are now blamed for the program's cancellation, but they simply raised the alarm on the issue. They had no power to stop it because, quite simply, the Christian right in Canada is not that strong.

Yes, Ontario's publicly funded Catholic school system balked at teaching these subjects, but in reality, their unique position in both constitutional and legislative terms means they never had to teach this material, regardless of ministry directives.

In the end though, what stopped the program from going ahead was the reaction of many parents, "You're going to teach my child what?"

In picking up the phone to call their local representative or a talk radio program, parents let their voices be heard. The government is now promising greater input from parents in the revision of the revised curriculum, "I think we have learned, in this particular case, that parents do want to know when there are changes.", Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky told reporters after the program was cancelled.
In this Canadian version of a familiar story, it wasn't just religious right parents or even Catholic parents (since Catholic schools weren't impacted) whose objection to the revised curriculum led to its cancellation. It was just parents; it was a widespread, community effort from people who looked at the materials and said, in effect, "No way. You're not teaching this graphic, unnecessary, inappropriate material to my child."

And that's a good sign, because there's every reason to believe that these fights are just beginning.

One one side of the battle are professional educators, bureaucrats, and the state itself, all in collusion to insist that they know what is best for children, and that the children themselves have the right to whatever education the professionals decide they should have, regardless of parental beliefs--even when the professionals think it's fine to teach relatively young children about oral and anal sex in a morals-free context.

On the other side, of course, are parents, who believe that their right to direct the upbringing and education of their own children is a God-given right which existed long before the modern state, and that their children have the right not to be taught one set of values at home, only to have those values contradicted, ignored, marginalized and overridden in the classroom, creating confusion and turmoil for the child.

Parents who are generally described as members of the Religious Right have been engaging in these battles, at least in America, for some time now. But if parents are going to defend parental rights against the modern state, it will be necessary for parents from every sort of background to agree to the general principle that parents do, indeed, have the right to direct the upbringing and education of their own children.

1 comment:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

If a child's right to know is at issue, one would at least expect that the child would have asked a question -- rather than being force fed information about subjects they had never thought of.

As I recall, sex education when I was in 7th or 8th grade consisted of some general health education and anatomy, leading up to a physical education teacher, on a rainy day when we couldn't go outside to play football, giving a somewhat halting explanation of the basics of heterosexual intercourse.

We probably could do better than that. But there is no reason to discuss "various ways to do it" unless students start raising questions like "I've heard that... and I was wondering if..." at which point, its time for some straight answers.

I share the distaste for bureaucrats deciding that "we know what's best for the children." They might, sometimes, but there is no cause for certainty. Maybe mother knows best, sometimes, also. Maybe there are still some things each individual should find out for themselves.